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What’s the Best Recipe for Productive Sales Conversations?

A tale of pies, dad jokes, and driving conversion


With Father’s Day upon us, it seems as good a time as ever to share a Dad Joke. Here’s one my Dad used to torture us with:


A man walks into a bakery and asks for a boston cream pie. The baker replies that he hasn’t got one, but that another bakery might. He directs the man to that bakery, where the same scene plays out. Embellishments include specifics about the bakers, the names of their shops, the circuitous directions to each destination (follow 7th Ave North until you see the old warehouse with the Beatles mural the Rotary Club painted back in ‘89…), and so forth. Rinse, repeat. The joke continues until the teller has relieved his audience of all will to live. At last the punchline arrives, like a mercy killing: the final baker has no boston cream pie, but he has got a banana cream pie. The guy happily takes it.


I recently inflicted this joke upon a group of glassy-eyed young sales people at a morning sales meeting (I’m not a complete monster, so I paraphrased it). We were discussing what sort of sales recommendations to make for Father’s Day shoppers. The group was about as forthcoming with their answers as an 8AM Trig class. Then one enterprising soul piped up with one of the most relevant sales questions you will ever hear:


“Can I…you know…ask what they like?”


Yes. You can.


This was the perfect segue to discuss the vital importance of asking open ended questions. It was here I employed the tedious parable of the baker and the pie guy. The anecdote clearly illustrates the dangers of closed-ended questions. Any time you settle for asking a potential customer a Yes or No question, you shut the door on a whole branch of possibilities. The same goes for how you follow up, which is the failing of the initial baker.


The core lesson is that even though you may not have precisely what a customer asks for, you may very well have something else they need or want. In fact, there are many cases in which the customer is simply misinformed about what they want, and they in fact really need something else (if you’ve ever sold hardware, then you know what I’m talking about). But if you don’t ask open-ended questions to qualify your customer, you may never find out what they might have purchased. They may walk away empty-handed or, worse, with something they will have to return.


So here’s a few examples of the types of questions you should ask a potential customer. Notice that they follow the basic journalistic questions you’ve known since kindergarten.


Who are you shopping for?

Never assume that the person you approach is the person who has to live with your product. I don’t care if you sell life insurance policies, adult diapers, or sex toys. You never know who may be shopping around on someone else’s behalf. Poor assumptions turn people off and waste time. Don’t assume. Ask.


Variations include: Who is this for? How will this be used?


Note that there is a double benefit to establishing this information. If the person standing in front of you is not the intended customer, then you now have access to two potential customers. Think about it.


What’s your goal?

I think people avoid this one because they’re afraid of sounding foolish. Obviously, if someone contacts you or walks into your business, they want to buy something, right?


Not always. They may be on a fact-finding mission, and that’s fine. Not everyone who walks into your store (whether digital or brick-and-mortar) is a customer. Establishing what they want (not what you can foist on them, but their actual purpose in contacting you) can save time. Taking time to ask this question in some form or another can also prevent you from launching into an unnecessary sales pitch, which is a waste of your time and major turnoff to the customer.


If you establish that the customer is looking to buy, you can further refine this question to point to a specific product. If someone is buying paint, for example, you can help them determine brand, finish, and color based on their plans for the room. If they need a gift for a birthday party, you can further specify a product based on their relation to the guest of honor.


Variations here include: What are you working on? What brings you in today?


How did you hear about this?

As you can probably infer, this question becomes relevant once the customer has requested a product or service. The request may be for something as specific as an auto part or the ISBN for a book, or it may be more general, like a request to see what evaporative coolers are available.


Knowing what first inspired a shopping excursion is a powerful thing. Online retailers and sometimes even physical locations collect this survey data with a mind toward marketing. From a marketing standpoint, it’s useful to know how people found you so that you can bolster that avenue of contact while reducing resources spent less effectively elsewhere.


But as always, qualifying a customer’s motivation helps you make a quality sale. Take my evaporative cooler example. When it comes to cooling an interior space, this is a lesser-known alternative to air conditioning. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that evaporative coolers (also called swamp coolers) do not produce the profound results of A/C because they don’t use a refrigerant. They draw in hot, ambient air and force it through a water-soaked filter, thus relying on the natural evaporative process to cool down the outgoing air. This means that they can only get the air temperature so low, and they need a dry enough climate for evaporation to actually occur (not a prudent choice in the South or Pacific Northwest). Their advantage is that they generally have a much lower energy cost to operate and are more environmentally friendly. Now if you live in say, North Carolina, and someone walks in asking for a swamp cooler because they heard it’s cheaper to run all summer than A/C, well, knowing that information helps you better serve their needs. Chances are, if you live in a humid region, you won’t even carry the product. Without asking open ended questions about the request, you might simply send the customer away to continue their search. Knowing their motives, however, can help qualify your recommendation. Yes, A/C costs more to run all August than a swamp cooler–but if you live somewhere humid, then you’d be wasting electricity anyhow. Better to go with A/C and run it selectively, perhaps with some quality weather-stripping or new windows to keep out the heat. Or, heck, have you heard of misters and box fans?


Where the product is less of a need and more of a want, say, a popular new book, then understanding a person’s exposure can help with additional recommendations. People who first heard about a book on a popular social media account may be interested in similarly popular items. Or if they’re interested because of the author’s background, or because they discovered the subject matter in a recent documentary, you may be able to sell them on a related title there. So for one request, you may end up selling two books. If you don’t have the book, instead of simply telling them “No we don’t have that,” you can offer an alternative. And, once this customer is dealt with, you have an even broader platform for making further recommendations in the future. Always remember that a quality sales conversation is also a future investment in market research.



What are you shopping for?

This is the last sales question you’ll ever need, and it should be considered not as the bottom of the list, but a summation of everything that preceded it. Just imagine that you and every customer you deal with are going to play a game of twenty questions. They are looking for a product (though it may not always be the one they have in mind), and if you can determine what it is, you’ll be rewarded with a sale. Sure, you can ask Yes or No questions to sidle up to them and hone in on it. That usually sounds something like this:


“Are you finding everything okay?”


“Where is your blah section?”


“It’s over there. Are you looking for something specific?”


“No, just browsing.”


“Okay, let me know if you need anything.”


Then later, if they don’t get lost and give up, you may find them in the blah section, leafing through tech manuals or reading labels.


“Still doing okay here?” You ask.


And they say yes, whether it’s the truth or not.


It’s true, some customers are not customers, just people who have come in to lurk or browse. You may never convert them if they have made a conscious decision not to buy. But you should never assume that you can recognize them on sight. It is actually less work to carry out the right kind of sales conversation up front.


Let’s say that your browser sort of has something in mind, but has some barrier to asking for it. Possibly they lack the terminology to articulate what they’re looking for, or they are simply too embarrassed to say they don’t know what it is they need. You can play twenty questions establishing its physical characteristics in relation to a bread box, or you can go for the jugular and ask the most obvious question.


“What are you shopping for?”


Just ask them. First question. Right in the door. You’re allowed to do that. It can even be the first sentence if you blend it with a greeting: “Hi folks, what are we shopping for?” Open-ended questions will not convert to sales 100% of the time–nothing will. But they will convert to sales in 100% of the cases where less-focused approaches would have. And they will do it faster, more efficiently, and generate more additional sales opportunities.


That’s my recipe for sales conversations that convert. Ask the questions that get your customers talking. Listen to what they have to say. Then sell them the pie that’s right for them.


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